Under the Surface: Imi Hwangbo
A publication of the International Sculpture Center
by Cathy Byrd
A finely drawn line separates Imi Hwangbo’s sensual sculptures of the 1990s from the discretely dimensional objects that she makes today. The swollen forms of “The Waiting Chamber” series have given way to exquisite introspection. Before, she carved and modeled organic shapes in plaster, then cast them into red rubber vessels. Now she turns her drawings into vellum maquettes and achieves sculptural geometric designs from multiple layers of digitally printed, hand-cut Mylar.
Hwangbo has exhibited her work at the International Print Center, the Alternative Museum, the Asian American Arts Centre in New York, the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center, the Schmidt/Dean Gallery in Philadelphia, the Korean Cultural Center in Los Angeles, and the Weatherspoon Art Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, among other venues. Solo exhibitions of her newest works are scheduled for 2004-2005 at Hiestand Gallery, Miami University of Ohio in Oxford, Ohio, and Kiang Gallery in Atlanta.
The artist’s fusion of drawing, printmaking, and sculpture translates the pojagi, an everyday object from her native Korea, into a surprisingly elegant visual language. Traditionally, women patch pojagi together from scraps of cloth in repetitive patterns and motifs that evoke flowers, animals, and elements of the natural landscape. Patterning plays a totemic role, offering protection and the promise of wealth, harmony, longevity, and fertility. A culturally specific kind of luggage, the ubiquitous pojagi adapts to what is in and what is not inside its folds. Hwangbo is much more interested in what is not: her wall-mounted and floor-based installations study the beauty of negative space. “I delve under the surface to create an image,” she says.
In Seer (2003), blooms are carefully extracted from a column of layered red Mylar. The solid color lends the form a visual density; from a distance, it appears to be die-cut latex, while up close, the exacting flower designs reveal multiple thin layers. Echoing inward, the red and white diamond grid column titled Without Being (2003) presents an intricate visual conflation of weightlessness and mass. Each layer in the five-foot wall installation loses a degree of density until the final outer layer is mere fretwork.
Hwangbo draws select elements from the pojagi’s inherent geometry to develop her own curved and linear designs, multiplying them in repeating patterns to create complex planar sculptures. Combining hand drawing and digital technology, she prints her designs in archival ink and cuts them out by hand. Each piece is constructed of translucent Mylar, a substance with the allure of silk. Her layering process produces elaborate patterns by removing material rather than by adding it. “In this way,” explains Hwangbo, “I transform the iconography of the pojagi into a more ambiguous statement.”
The work is emblematic of an individual experience that represents an entire cultural system. Each precisely hand-cut form evokes a pure femininity while remembering Korean women’s traditional concern with ornamentation. Blessé (2004), for example, alludes to delicate filigree, flowered vines, or lace in a pair of 11-foot cascading forms. The artist believes that the pojagi series functions as “a feminist critique by inverting traditional icons of desire for fertility…these icons are elaborated and expanded, but not embodied,” she states. Through this visual metaphor for fecundity, she illustrates how an artist’s inventive mind might take the place of the womb, giving birth to a unique body of work.
This philosophy is reflected in Mitosis (for Frida Kahlo) (2003), a sculpture that ripples out on the floor like a perfect white flower, with layers of petals radiating from the scalloped central opening, each streaked with a thin red line. Spire (2004), a new companion piece in red, is shallow at the center, with layers accumulating outward to a two-foot thickness.
Hwangbo’s titles add other layers of thought. Without Being alludes to the way that creating negative space became the substance of the work. “Blessé,” meaning “wounded” in French, might refer to the fragile or bruised ego that lies behind the lacy beauty. The white bloom of Mitosis (for Frida Kahlo) recalls the lingering feminist influence of the late Mexican painter whose art became her progeny.
Hwangbo’s work has remained open to diverse critical interpretations. Barry Walker, curator of prints and drawings at the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, included Without Being in a recent print show, writing how “the artist works in a scale that is distinctly sculptural, but subverts the format with the illusionism of Op Art.” When Glenn Harper wrote about “The Waiting Chamber” for Sculpture magazine in 1998, he remarked on the “new wit and a contemporary reference to pop culture in Hwangbo’s work.” He noted that her art created enough distance from its source to become fresh and multivalent.
Six years ago, my personal response was to the psycho-sexual physicality of “The Waiting Chamber.” Evoking a swollen tongue, a chambered heart, and intimate body cavities, those sensual red bulbous shapes and their valve openings echoed the feminist sculpting of Eva Hesse and Louise Bougeois. I was struck by how “Hwangbo unsettles our view of vulnerability and pleasure, awaking in us a desire to express the same naked volupté.”
Her latest, and equally potent, series elicits an entirely different reaction. These days, she makes viewers think about female beauty without reference to the physical body. Her sculptures have become more deeply metaphoric and contemplative. Hwangbo believes that her artmaking “evokes a Buddhist concept of emptiness as a state to be achieved rather than avoided. From this viewpoint, the experience of emptiness is a starting point for self-exploration.” Indeed, as the eye and mind seek to comprehend the detail and perfection of these quiet forms, we become participants in the inward spiral of Hwangbo’s creative innovation.
Atlanta-based critic and curator Cathy Byrd directs the gallery and teaches at the Georgia State University Ernest G. Welch School of Art and Design.